After driving a red Smart ForTwo for years, the tiny tyke mobile finally gave up the ghost around a year and a half ago when the transmission refused to shift in to neutral or park and kept driving when I wanted to stop. In its stead, my parents and I found a pretty mint condition, low mileage, 2007 Mini Cooper S — the first generation of the turbocharged breed of engines in the mini.

When I first got the car, one of my friends who is a pretty big petrol-head made the comment that:

“You might be the only person I know who bought a Mini Cooper and upgraded in size and safety.”

I knew going into the purchase of a new car that I wanted something primarily small and good on gas, and preferably with a manual transmission if possible, and the Mini made good on those desires.

While the car is certainly small by today’s vehicular standards in the United States, it’s almost 1.5 times heavier, and around 1.5 times longer than the Smart. It has four seats, though the back bench is essentially reserved for trips across town, children, and backpacks; the front two bucket seats are spacious and reasonably-well bolstered. BUT, the rear seats fold down, more than doubling the room in the back of the car. As I rarely drive with more than one other person in the car, what this means for me is that with very few exceptions, I never hurt for room. I’ve put everything from bicycles to sails to dogs to evacuation packing in the back of the Mini — things I’d never have been able to do in or with the Smart Car. That being said, the car actually feels smaller and cozier than the Smart did, due to the lower roof height, darker window tint, and shorter front windscreen — one that wasn’t reminiscent of a greenhouse roof. With the size upgrade came a fuel penalty: while I never had to work to keep the Smart Car at an in-town consumption average of 36mpg or better, the Mini usually hovers around 30–32mpg, and I have to remain cognizant of it as I drive.

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Bike and assorted gear for a week-long trip to South Carolina

Along with a size upgrade, I also got a power upgrade. The Smart Car generated 71 brake horsepower and about the same figure in pound-feet of torque. This Mini (thanks to an extra cylinder — 4 versus 3 — and a turbocharger on top of it) spat out 170 HP and 170 lb-ft when it was new, though those figures are probably a shade smaller 12 years on. Together, these increased power and torque numbers make the city driving experience entirely different. The limited power in the Smart Car meant that running the air conditioning on full blast over the summer sacrificed acceleration; this is typical in all vehicles — the air conditioning taxes the engine. With the Smart’s tiny engine and equally small output, this meant that any acceleration with the AC on wasn’t even on the level of a bicycle: rather, it was positively pedestrian, and there were times when the car couldn’t maintain its speed uphill. I’ve never had that problem in the Mini. The addition of low-end (low RPMs, for those of you who aren’t car people) torque in the Mini is also a god-send for fuel efficiency and puttering around town: the car makes 100% of it’s torque at 1500rpm, meaning that I can just put my foot in it at basically any speed and squirt my way in and out of traffic.

I can just put my foot in it at basically any speed and squirt my way in and out of traffic.

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Dual exhaust: vroom vroom! (I broke the passenger side brake light cover on a trip home from Jacksonville one day last year — I think a rock kicked up and smashed it…if I took this picture now it would be much sadder…

And driving in traffic has certainly been the hardest part of owning this car for me. While I learned how to drive a stick shift years ago, I’ve never daily-driven one. Knowing that a clutch repair in this car runs between $3000–4000, I was tentative. (One of the big selling points when we bought the car was that it had recently had the clutch replaced.) I wasn’t smooth or perfect by any stretch of the imagination at shifting for the first six months: in fact I’d say that it’s only been recently, over the summer, after a year of driving the car almost every day, that I’ve gotten the four-limbed motion of clutch-shift-steer-accelerate down to something that resembles second nature. And I still botch it on the regular.

When I get the shifts right — when I can rev-match and I’ve got it in sport mode and nail the apex of a corner perfectly…it’s an almost indescribable fun.

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😉

I’m not going to win any races in the car: it’s not exceedingly fast, and I baby the clutch and engine as much as I can (I rarely go over 3000–4000rpm, when it maxes at 6500+), but it’s a quick, stiff, peppy vehicle. In fact, it’s about as fast in and around town as I could conceive of owning and driving now or into the near future. Anything faster or better handling would be a waste, when you realize that there are already too few places in and around town to truly safely and legally push this little hatchback. Taking into account my lack of experience driving stick, and I almost always reach my performance limits as a driver before the car reaches its limits.

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Mini + Trek Stache

Driving the “Mellow Yellow” (BMW-Mini’s paint name, not mine) Cooper hasn’t all been dandelions and roses:

A German luxury brand pretending to be a classic English sports car: what could be a worse combination of reliability and repair cost?

Originally Mini was an English marque — now it’s owned and manufactured by BMW. English vehicles (or really, any mechanical product) don’t exactly have a reputation for stellar reliability, and despite their luxury prestige, neither do the big German brands. On top of that, the luxury German car companies (Mercedes, BMW, Audi, etc.) tend to have an associated premium on repairs. Putting them together makes for one hell of a combination when there’s a problem with the car. Luckily for us, considering its mileage, it’s first-generation motor, and it’s “pedigree,” it hasn’t treated us too poorly. The car burns oil, and has a couple tiny oil leaks. Okay, no big deal — I check the oil every week and top off as needed. It creaks and rattles inside the cabin, and occasionally makes weird, grumpy engine noises. [Shrug] The sunroof doesn’t work, even after an expensive $600 switch at the last service. The battery crapped out with no warning one time on my mother when she borrowed it to drive to Jacksonville with my brother. It was lowered by a previous owner, and scrapes any major road inconsistencies. There’s also some suspension creak and maybe a wheel bearing that’s not in great shape. The biggest problem that’s presented itself was last summer, it would CHUG coolant, and we discovered that the thermostat housing was cracked, and needed to be replaced, which also generated some other ensuing problems — like the fan running full time, due to a non-OEM plug replacement. A trip to Pensacola’s Mini dealer fixed the fan problem, and they graciously replaced the timing chain tensioner, the chain, and the rest of the assembly — historically the largest and most pertinent mechanical problem presented by the first generation turbo engine.

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Fresh rain on the non-functional sunroof

After more than a year, having driven over 25,000 miles, I can’t imagine a more perfect car for me, at this point in my life.

Prior to the development of its nasty transmission gremlins, I couldn’t have asked for a better car than the Smart; age, maturity, and lifestyle evolve, and after more than a year, having driven over 25,000 miles, I can’t imagine a more perfect car for me, at this point in my life. Road trips to south Florida, Jacksonville, Atlanta, and South Carolina wouldn’t have been feasible in the Smart; some of the people and things I’ve loaded and unloaded in the Mini would have been unimaginable to tote in the Smart Car. Though there are indeed days when the noises and potential future mechanical problems of the Mini give me major anxiety when I drive it, the days when I can put the windows down and accelerator pedal to the floor more than make up for it. I don’t foresee the car lasting much longer than another year or three — I drive a lot, and the car isn’t objectively the highest quality — but by that time, my age and lifestyle will have evolved again and I’ll be ready for the next vehicular step in my life.

If you’re in the market for a sporty and efficient two-door hatchback and find a Mini in good upkeep for a reasonable price, I can’t recommend one enough. That being said, after a year’s worth ownership right now, I can’t really recommend a brand-new Cooper based on the build quality and reliability/maintenance issues.

*As an edit, I threw some old images of the Mini in here from my archives to spice the review up a bit. This IS a photo blog after all.

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